16 July 2018

Review - The Con Artist by Fred Van Lente

The Con Artist
Fred Van Lente (Illustrated by Tom Fowler)
Quirk, 10 July 2018
PB, 287pp

Source: Advance copy from publisher (thank you Jamie!)

I enjoyed Van Lente's previous book, Ten Dead Comedians, a reworking of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None so I was pleased to see this coming out. Set among the crammed exhibition halls and frenzied parties of San Diego Comic Con and featuring ten illustrations by Tom Fowler, this book follows the unravelling of Mike Mason's life over four days - and features some sharp asides about the comics business and fandom in general.

Mike is an intriguing if (initially) less than likeable central character. Conventions are his life. Since his marriage collapsed and he dropped out of illustrating comics himself, he's lived a wandering life, travelling from con to con (he confesses at one point that, as there are some times of year no cons take place, he does sometimes have to resort to his parents' home... to his care). Mike makes his living undertaking commissions from fans - there are some pretty, um, interesting poses that they will pay to have superheroes drawn in - but not, we gradually learn, actually illustrating any comics.

When Mike runs into an old enemy, Danny Lieber, the man for whom Mike's wife left him, but also "the most hated man in the industry" (though we meet others who might equally deserve the title) he can't resist taking a swing at him. But things turn sour when Danny is murdered - with Mike now the No 1 Suspect, his life is plagued by two wise-talking cops. Can he track down the true killer, work out what's going on and finish those commissions?

Featuring many well known - and some lesser known - Comic Con attractions, from a five hour long awards dinner to geek burlesque, this book gives a rather different insight into events from that which you may be used to, whether or not you're a Comic Con attendee. In particular Mike's speech about bad treatment of comics creators hits, I think, very close to home. But we also get the brash and the over the top, from cosplay to live action roleplay to hotels and convention centres festooned with storeys-high depictions of characters.

Despite the trapping this is, though, at bottom a murder mystery - and a rather effective one at that. The clues are there to be seen (some of them literally, in Fowler's drawings - look at them closely) but I must admit, I didn't spot the killer until late on and even then, I had to wait for the denouement to understand everything.

Whether as a celebration of geek life or a murder mystery, this is an excellent read and I hope that Van Lente returns to the form soon.

13 July 2018

Blogtour - Dancing on the Grave Q&A

Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp

And now for something a little different - today we're joining the blogtour for the fantastic Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp.

Well known for her series featuring Charlotte (Charlie) Fox, Zoë has also written standalone fiction before and has now returned to this with Dancing on the Grave:

A sniper with a mission… a young cop with nothing to lose… a CSI with everything to prove… a teenage girl with a terrifying obsession…

In one of the most beautiful corners of England, something very ugly is about to take place.

There’s a killer on the loose in the Lake District hills, and the calm of an English summer is shattered.  For newly qualified Crime Scene Investigator, Grace McColl,  it’s both the start of a nightmare and the chance to prove herself after a mistake that cost a life.

For Detective Constable Nick Weston, recently transferred from London, it’s an opportunity to recover his nerve after a disastrous undercover operation left him for dead.

And for a lonely, loveless girl, Edith, it’s the beginning of a twisted fantasy—one she never dreamed might come true.

Zoë has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the new book, writing and stuff in general. So, over to Zoë.

BBB: Your new book, Dancing on the Grave, is a standalone – coming after a long series of books featuring Charlie Fox. Is it easier or more difficult writing a standalone? (Is it “Yay! Freedom!” or “Where do I even start?”)

ZS: It was both those reactions, really. Writing standalones in third person and being able to use multiple viewpoints does give you a great sense of freedom. By using close-third, it was fascinating to be able to get right inside the heads of the characters rather than just Charlie Fox, which with the exception of a couple of the short stories, I’ve always written in first person, so I’m always telling the story from Charlie’s point of view and hers alone. With Dancing on the Grave, I limited it mostly to four POVs – the CSI, Grace McColl; the young detective, DC Nick Weston; and the other main players in this drama, Patrick Bardwell and Edith Airey.

This allowed me to really look at the motivations of the people involved – especially those you would consider to be the antagonists – and understand why they were carrying out such apparently monstrous acts. Crime fiction for me is more about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’. After all, with this book you’re following the actions of the sniper almost from the start. This is not a whodunit where you have to work out his identity (although that comes into the story to a certain extent) but what his reasons are. And especially what drives Edith, the disturbed teenager who throws in her lot with the sniper.

Plus, it’s good occasionally to take a break from a long-running series – I’m just starting Charlie Fox book thirteen now – so you can return to it revitalised and refreshed. I have quite a few story ideas that simply wouldn’t work for Charlie. This gives me the opportunity to write them.

BBB: The book is set in the English Lake District, a traditionally peaceful area. What made you want to set a story of murder in such a place?

ZS: Here I’d have to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches: “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” In this case, my sniper is using a very large-calibre rifle with a very long range. Using the open countryside of the Lake District in Cumbria – recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site – makes that threat more claustrophobic, somehow, than being in a city. The juxtaposition of having sudden death visited out of nowhere in the midst of such tranquillity is, I think, that much more shocking.

BBB: The story was inspired by a series of shootings that took place in Washington DC in 2002 – we’re, sadly, accustomed to hearing about such events in the US, but what was involved in transposing this to the UK?

ZS: I did take as my original inspiration the Washington Sniper attacks in 2002, particularly the aspect of an older sniper and a younger, more impressionable spotter. It was that complex relationship I wanted to explore more fully as I wrote about Bardwell and Edith. These are both deeply damaged people – damage not entirely of their own making in Bardwell’s case.

Sadly, we too have experienced spree shootings in the UK – at Hungerford, Dunblane, and the Cumbria shootings committed in 2010. But when Derrick Bird went on the rampage in the west of the county, shooting twelve people dead and injuring a further eleven before also killing himself, I felt the need to put this project aside for a while. It didn’t matter that I’d already written the story, already set it in Cumbria, way before those events. Bringing the book out immediately afterwards, with a plot based around a gunman on the loose, seemed too exploitative, and publishers at the time shied away from it.

Since Dunblane, gun control has been very strict in the UK. Bird used a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun, which is more widely available as a sporting gun here, and a .22 calibre bolt-action rifle, also legal for pest control. Nobody can legally own automatic or semiautomatic assault weapons, or handguns. In Dancing on the Grave, Edith has a small-bore .22 Gaucher rifle, which she uses for rabbits and grey squirrels. (Cumbria is one of the few areas where there are still native red squirrels and great pains are taken to ensure the non-native greys do not encroach on their territory.) Her father, a volunteer policeman, is a gun nut who, in theory, handed in the majority of his weapons collection after the ban came into effect. In practice, however, that’s another story…

The police in the UK are not routinely armed. In Cumbria some of the motorway patrols are also ARVs (Armed Response Vehicles) but the weapons are kept in a locked box inside the vehicle and special authorisation has to be given before they can be deployed. (Or that’s how it worked at the time I did my research and, consequently, when the events of the story take place.) This was never going to end in the kind of armed stand-off you might expect in a US-set novel.

BBB: You’ve also said that the story is about fame in today's society. Without being too spoilery, do you think there is anything uniquely modern about notoriety through crime (I think of 18th century broadsides and celebrity criminals making speeches in the scaffold)?

ZS: There has grown up in recent years what is, for me, a dreadful culture of people wanting to be famous simply for being famous, without any talent or skill involved. This has been largely brought about, I think, through the explosion of reality TV shows. Apparently, kids leave school declaring their ambition to be “a celebrity” without tacking on that desire to any particular profession. For Edith, a dysfunctional dreamer who feels utterly suffocated by her mundane upbringing and her dull parents, the opportunity to do something – anything – to break her out of that world is one she grasps with an enthusiasm bordering on mania. I quote Henry Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” to which I add a common, if misquoted, postscript “and go to their graves with the song still in them.” It seemed to sum up Edith’s greatest fear – and therefore her greatest motivating factor – to the letter.

BBB: In a lighter vein, I've always thought it must be fun, though very difficult, writing about a crime-scene investigator. All that science! All that detail! Is it fun? And how do you manage the detail?

ZS: It is fun, and it’s also a hell of a lot of hard work. As with any research, you take in a huge amount of information and then leave about ninety percent of it out. I try to remember that I am not writing a How To manual. But I like technical detail – it’s why I enjoy house renovation so much. It appeals to both my creative side in the designing and planning, and my practical, problem-solving side in the actual construction. If somebody pulls a gun in one of my books, I want to know what kind of gun, and why they chose it – that tells me a lot about the character.

For the crime scene side of things, I’d already done quite a bit of work for my previous standalone, The Blood Whisperer, where the main character, Kelly Jacks, is a former CSI turned crime-scene cleaner. For this book, however, I spent some time talking to CSIs from Cumbria, as well as other experts in the field, and I did a lot of reading of forensic science textbooks of the type that are used to train real CSIs.

When it came to the weapons, I used to competition-shoot with rifle, so I have a pretty good working knowledge of the theory of sniping, but using a .50 calibre weapon – as Bardwell does in Dancing on the Grave – meant I had to learn a lot more about the complexities of shooting at the kind of distances where even the curvature of the earth has to be taken into account. It’s all fascinating stuff, but I tried not to let it overwhelm the story at any point.

BBB: Can we expect any more from McColl and Weston?

ZS: I see Dancing On The Grave as another in my non-series series, if that makes sense? The first of these was my last standalone, The Blood Whisperer, and is linked to this book by having strong female main protagonists, who for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to go to the police when things start to go bad.

And as with Kelly Jack in The Blood Whisperer, I’m not ruling out another book involving Grace and Nick. I do have more storylines fermenting for those two, but equally I have other characters and stories I’d like to pursue first. I just need to speed up my process, but I’m working on it, honest!

BBB: Now some more general questions… stop me if any of this gets too personal! What's your writing day/routine like? And where do you write best?

ZS: Erm, I don’t really have a writing routine, which is probably a bad thing, right? I like to make notes on paper before I sit down with my laptop. (I call this using my neck-top computer – I’m saving up for an iBrain.) It always helps having something to prompt me. I find I can jot down the main points I want to cover in a scene or conversation between characters, then I can expand on that more fluidly when it comes time to put fingers to keyboard.

When I’m in full-on book mode, I set myself a monthly word target – around 30,000 words. It works out at only a thousand words a day, which may not sound too many, but that’s if you can find time to write every day. As it is, I keep a running total, so my daily target goes up and down according to how productive I’ve managed to be so far that month. If I don’t do this, it’s too easy for a day off to become a weekend off, to become a week without getting anything written, and then I’ve lost momentum altogether and have to spend more time reading what’s come before to get me back up to speed than time spent writing.

Generally speaking, I can write more or less anywhere. Certainly I can make notes anywhere to write up later. When I worked as a photographer I used to write regularly in the car on the way to shoots. I was usually the passenger, I hasten to add, rather than the driver! If I’m at home, I like to plug in an ergonomic keyboard and a big flatscreen to my laptop to give me more thinking space. It means I can have several screens open with research information as well as my writing document.

BBB: Do you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and do you know how things are going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself?

Zoë Sharp
ZS: I do like to know where the story is going before I start, so I plan in advance. Not necessarily the nitty-gritty of the plot, but certainly the main dramatic events. What I don’t tend to plan are the responses of the characters to those events, so that they react in a more organic way when I reach that point in the story. My outlines tend to have E&OE at the end of them, which you used to get on quotations from tradespeople. (Errors & Omissions Excepted.) Things often change and mutate quite a bit as you go.

Perhaps more important to me than an outline is a summary. As I write, I keep a note of each chapter – the gist of conversations, the main plot points covered, injuries any of the characters are carrying, which day it is, and whether this chapter carries on immediately from the events of the last chapter, or if there’s a time jump or flashback scene. That way, when I’ve finished the book and come to edits, I can make any alterations to the storyline on my summary rather than having to wade through several hundred pages of typescript.

And yes, although I know where I’m going, sometimes things happen on the page that I wasn’t expecting or even that I didn’t see coming at all. Numerous times, a minor character rewrites a cameo into a starring role when I’m not paying attention. It’s a fallacy that writers control the worlds we write about – sometimes I think we’re just channelling them with no control whatsoever.

I think of writing a thriller as making a fast bike journey at night. You’re rushing along darkened roads, clinging on for grim death. You know roughly where you’re going but you’re not entirely sure of the route, or what hazards lie ahead. You can see in detail only the stretch of tarmac directly in front in the beam of your lights. And, throughout, you’re aware you might crash and burn at any moment. It’s a constant mix of fear and adrenaline. Remind me again – why do I do this…?

BBB: Zoë - thanks for that, and best wishes with publication of Dancing on the Grave: may it find many readers!

Zoë Sharp is the author of twelve books (so far) in the crime thriller series featuring ex-Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, as well as a joint novella with espionage thriller author John Lawton, numerous short stories, and two (again, so far) standalone novels, of which Dancing on the Grave is the latest. She spent some years living in the Lake District, where she helped self-build her own house. She now divides her time between writing, improvising self-defence techniques, house renovation, and international pet-sitting.

Find out more on www.ZoeSharp.com.

Dancing On The Grave
Zoë Sharp
£9.99 mmpb ISBN: 9781909344402 ebook ISBN: 9781909344396

10 July 2018

Review - Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

Cover design by Sue Michniewicz
Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz, 28 June 2018
PB, 322pp
Source: Advance copy from the publisher (thank you!)

'The windmill you are tilting at is very high and ancient and English: Privilege...'

Well. (or should I say, Wells...?)

This is a strange one. It's a mashup of classic espionage (1930s, British Empire vs Soviet Union, a molehunt and traitors among the gilded products of elite English education) with horror (through some higher dimensional maths, the afterlife has been discovered so Spooks can literally be... spooks), overtones of steampunk (Queen Victoria rules from beyond the grave in her Summer Court) there are spirit crowns and the "coppery weave of spirit armour" and a dash of paradoxical mathematics (how can one rely on a system that must, logically, contain contradictions?)

It must, I think, take a good dose of self-belief to make such a thing work, as this does, combined with the ability to spin a great story. This account of Rachel White's thankless service for a thankless Service - she's an outsider, as a mere woman, also suspect as a married woman, shouldn't she have given up her job? - is certainly a great story. (I think all the best spy books need an outsider, someone who's prepared to judge, make a stir, in the secret world).

And Rajaniemi is assured in the way he makes the fantasy stuff - the ghosts, Summerland itself, the crowns and mediums and so on - a key part of the story, not just something tacked on. This is an alternate world. There is "Oxford Court" Tube line. Ectotanks win wars. Lenin has become "The Presence" - a steely hive mind. There may still be a Civil War in Spain, but its stakes are different, higher than in our universe. The science is different too, with a forgotten dead-end of 19th century science raised to the status of truth*. One of the fun things about the book is how much reality Rajaniemi allows to bleed in, whether it's the Prime Minister, modelled on HG Wells (see if you can spot the references to his books), the (real and alleged) spies and traitors who surround Rachel or indeed the mathematics and logic.

That makes the story seem more of a game than it is, this is a genuinely compelling narrative, focussing as it does on the frustrated life of Rachel White, the obscure, flailing motivations of Peter Bloom and on the wider, corrosive effect of the Empire's control of the spirit world. Bluntly, there is no more death, those assured of a "Ticket" can find their way to Summerland, where a little society has been build up (from bricks made of dead souls...) there to live out their deaths for eternity, even able to contact the living by "etheric telephone". It's to Rajaniemi's credit that he makes this whole edifice seem not only plausible but inevitable - as are the downsides. With no more life and death, what matters anymore? Only the most desperate loss is real now, such as a pregnancy that ended early or a soul literally consumed by one of those aetheric tanks. And with death, at large.defeated, what grief, what guilt, might be loaded on those affected by those rare true deaths?

So - whether as a story of tradecraft, spooks (of both kinds), mysterious files and of treachery, as one of horror and meddling with things We Were Not Meant To Know or as a sad and moving human tale dwelling on the aftereffects of loss, this would be a great book. As a blend of all three, it's unputdownable. The writing is sharp ("The raindrops tasted like fear") with the whole concept allowing for the emotional core of the story to be made literal ("the soul-fragments he carried from the War spilled out and made cold spots in the bedroom...", "the best of what the British Empire had to offer, spun from aether and made solid by collective belief." ) and Rajaniemi isn't above sly references to the classics of spy fiction (so, to a character shivering in the yard: 'Why don't you come in from the cold and tell us all about it?'  Altogether a triumph, and I'd strongly recommend it.

For more about the book see the publisher's website here.


*Aether atoms. The idea is that space is filled with an invisible fluid, the aether, which is the stuff that supports light waves (as the air supports sounds waves). The idea of aether fell out of favour, not so much disproved as shown by Einstein to be unnecessary. In this world things took a different turn, and an idea that was seriously considered before Einstein - that atoms can then be imagined as more or less complicated, endlessly spinning aether vortices - essentially knots - plays an important part in its physics.

8 July 2018

Review - Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Cover by crushed.co.uk
Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik
Macmillan, 12 July 2018
HB, 466pp
Source: advance copy from publisher (thank you!)

This was the first time I'd read a book by Novik. Her Temeraire series and Uprooted have received lots of praise so I was pleased to have an opportunity to review this new standalone story.

Set in the snowy Eastern European forests long ago, Spinning Silver is the story of three young women. Miryem is the daughter of the village moneylender - who, sadly, lacks the instinct for his occupation. Wanda has no mother, and a father who mistreats her and her young brothers. Irina, whose mother has also died, is a member of the nobility, but just as much under her father's control as Irina: he plots to marry her off for political advantage.

Faced with starvation, Miryem takes a hand in her father's business. If he doesn't have the steel, the coldness, for the work, she does. But that coldness attracts attention, and when the King of Winter, the Staryk, demands a favour of Miryem, he sets in motion a chain of events that changes the lives of all three. Their stories then cross and interweave, each affecting the other in what are at the start, three parallel tales. I might almost say three parallel fairy tales, there are so many traditional elements here; of course the idea of spinning silver into gold, but also the witch's house in the woods, the castle of ice, the motherless child, and so on.

Yet for all the magical atmosphere Novik keeps things firmly anchored in practicality. Things like food, money, warmth matter here - as does the catastrophe that can befall a young woman when men  man scheme to use her.

Politics and position at Court also matter - the need to anchor a fractious kingdom, provide an heir and keep the nobles in their place. And to raise taxes at a time when winter is growing in power and destroying the crops the people depend on...

Novik fills the book with well observed descriptions of things that are often left out in fantasy - profit and loss, trade and goods, as Miryem attempts to rescue the family business. The difference a little extra food of fuel can make,  as Wanda shivers with her brothers in their cottage. The need to rebuild a city wall breached in battle and the money that makes that happen, how the job is financed and who the loan came from. She takes her time to show the amount of effort involved in making a dress, a mattress cover, a silver ring. The work must always come first.

And when the time comes that the protagonists - not just Miryem, but her parents, not just Wanda, but her brothers - are in danger, it's almost always these little, practical things that save them. In one place Novik takes nearly a page describing a piece of knitting, as part of showing how little positive acts fortify a house against the cold, the unnatural winter that's spreading through the land. Food is prepared and put on the table, logs found for warmth, and people survive. The wolf is kept away for another day, and sometimes that's enough.

Which isn't to say that larger things aren't afoot. There are true monsters here, and they have to be fought, but Novik blurs the lines so that it often seems to be a matter of setting the lesser evil against the greater, than of pure good. And even as the fight becomes fiercer, there are side agendas - such as Irina's father seeking to marry her off to the Tsar, and her own response. The struggle for survival and the politics of a small and unstable kingdom are never far apart. This is a complicated book, where good intentions aren't enough and can lead to real harm.

There are some particularly poignant themes here. There is the prejudice shown against Miryem and her family in their village for being Jewish, also embodied in the separate "quarter" - complete with guards at the gates - for the Jews in town: in both cases there is the ever present threat of violence, the of needing to escape, in the background even of prosperous and successful lives (let alone Miryem's scatty and impoverished parents). There is the position of an older unmarried woman, having to make a place for herself in a noble house because it's that or starve. There is the plight of the peasants, one bowl of soup or handful of logs away from death (and subject to Draconian punishment for taking an animal or a fallen tree from the forest).

It's am immersive and enchanting book - and that's even before adding in the mysterious, mercurial Staryk King, a proud and aloof character with a convoluted and difficult sense of honour that only very slowly unwinds so that we can understand what he's really doing. Think of a Mr Darcy, perhaps, - but with the power to bring winter in the height of summer.

Novak is good at worldbuilding and gives a real sense that this story is just part of a wider landscape - for example that witch's house has an awful lot going on that is never really explored (even while she makes clear that she's inverting the trope of the wicked house in the woods: this house is a welcoming place). There are, we sense, other stories here which could be told.

My only criticism would be a slight lack of distinction I felt, especially at the start, between Miryem, Irina and Wanda: while their circumstances are very different they do come across as very similar to  in voice, something underlined by having each narrate sections of the book as "I" - there are also sections narrated by other characters, but fewer of them. (You may, though, think this actually emphasises how - for all the differences in status between the three - the fact that they are women in a patriarchal society puts them all very much in the same boat and demands that they each act with every last ounce of resource, ingenuity and courage.)

But that's a minor quibble, overall I enjoyed Spinning Silver a great deal. It's one to savour, with so much detail, so much suggested, that it begs to be read slowly and carefully. Novik dismantles the traditional fairy story, twists the parts round ninety degrees, and puts it back together again, adding a deep historical resonance and a telling mesh of race, gender and class issues and creating a study of power and marginalisation that is still truly and magically a fairy story.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about the book see the publisher's page here.

6 July 2018

Review - Adrift by Rob Boffard

Cover design by Charlotte Stroomer
Rob Boffard
Orbit, 7 June 2018
PB, 371pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

While meticulous in its space opera setting - the remote space station, the wormhole "gate", fusion reactors and inertial dampers - this is at hear a very old fashioned survival story, which reminded me of books by authors like Alastair Maclean. Following a surprise attack which destroys Sigma Station, newbie tour guide Hannah, who's on her very first shift, finds herself alone in a beat-up shuttle, the sole crew apart from drunken pilot Volkova and in charge of a vocal and ill assorted group of passengers.

Classic disaster movie material they are - the restaurant critic running from a broken relationship, the honeymoon couple, a high-ranking politician, her husband and sons, a widow who's sold up the business she and her husband built up and gone - literally - to see the stars. None of them are particularly helpful in an emergency, but they all have strong opinions ("I'm gonna sue... I'm here on business, and your company just ignored all safety precautions.") In the face of such an overwhelming crisis, can Hannah hold herself together, overcome self-doubt and inexperience, and survive?

It's a riveting read, barely pausing as one catastrophe flows into the next. The Red Panda was never designed to do much more than paddle round the outside of Sigma Station, allowing tourists to gawp and the might leisure-couplex-cum-mining-colony. But, as it turns out, the ship doesn't even have a minimum of emergency provisions. Low on food, water and medical supplies, beset by internal arguments and menaced by a mysterious attack ship, survival seems a remote possibility.

I enjoyed the way that Boffard animates the story, giving all the passengers and crew distinct characters - there's a real danger with this kind of thing that the reader won't be able to tell who is who, or remember why they should care, but in Adrift you surely will very quickly learn who's who (and what's what).

The political background - which is relevant to the story and setting - is also convincingly portrayed. It's fifteen years since the war between the Colonies and the Frontier (i.e. Earth) ended with a treaty that's only been grudgingly accepted. All the characters look back to that history and the older ones have direct experience - whether fighting, reporting, taking part in the negotiations that ended the conflict or losing someone they loved. I sensed the tension and pain of that in much of the bickering aboard Red Panda, as well as in the heroics that are needed to address the crisis.

In the end it is, perhaps, a very personal story in which the protagonists - especially Hannah (who is, after all, wearing the "red shirt of command") and Jack, the cynical (and, frankly, rather unlikeable) journalist - need to come to terms with who they are and with who they want to be. (That might also be said for another character but I won't mention their name as it would be a spoiler).

This, too, reminded me of survival stories like South by Java Head or River of Death. In the end it's all about character, determination and pushing through.

All in all, a great, entertaining read filled with twists and moments of real dread. Recommended.

For more about the book, see Rob Boffard's website here or the Orbit site here.

29 June 2018

Review - Gamble by Kerry Hadley-Price

Cover design by The Cover Factory
Kerry Hadley-Price
Salt, 15 June 2018
PB, 181pp
Source: Purchased directly from publisher

I'd been looking forward to Gamble ever since I spotted it in the Salt catalogue, having loved Hadley-Pryce's previous slice of self-referential noir, The Black Country (review here). And it didn't disappoint. It is though one of those books I can see is going to be hard to review. These are - for me - books which, in spite of enjoying immensely, are tricky because they are in some sense perfect. They are the ultimate distillation, the essence, of what it was the author was trying to convey, so that any attempt at a summary or a discussion  only seems to detract. I'm sure there's an idea in mathematics or computer science about an object that can't be compressed any further because it is, itself, the most compact representation of itself. It's like that.

Anyway, enough waffle, to Gamble. This is one weird book. To begin with the obvious, the voice is like nothing I'd encountered before. It has a narrator, yes, and that might be an omniscient, third person narrator, - but it's hard to tell. The book describes teacher Greg Gamble's past actions, thoughts, and feelings in a generally third person way, but it frequently cuts away, as it were:

"He'll say he felt all his thoughts hardening off..."

"That's what Gamble will tell you"

or even more pointedly

"He'll say now..."

It's as if there is a kind of filter going on. At the same time as being reported on, Gamble is, we sense, being informed on, being judged. What do they mean, all these "He'll says"? Do they imply that Gamble will, if pressed, deceive? Or that he has reflected on his life and is now prepared to admit things he couldn't face at the time?

And if there is deception, how deep is it? Is Gamble misleading us about the plain facts of what happened - did any of this story actually happen, at least any of it not witnessed, not involving, another person? Or is he misleading us about his attitude, his thoughts, the interpretation he placed - then or now, whenever now is - on all those moments documented in this book? Because they are documented, in exquisite detail but also (because of the foregoing) absolute obscurity. This is the story of a middle-aged man with regrets. A selfish, solipsistic, man who seems not hostile, not resentful, but simply bored with his wife Carolyn and daughter Isabelle, to the extent of almost withdrawing from their lives until, perhaps, some crisis call on him to "perform".

At the same time he seems ever ready to pay attention to young women, especially young women who are his former pupils. He seems possessed almost of an adolescent attitude, a smouldering anger and tendency to act up (there's lots of smouldering in this book, it's a very smoky book with Gamble's indulgence in smoking almost a badge of rebellion - both against his family and humdrum life and also, perhaps, the illness that it is hinted is gnawing away at him). And there is that youthful self-centredness, inability to consider the consequences of his actions for others. (In one place he rejoices that a young woman he fancies appears "uncareful"). All conveyed in delicate, telling detail which is sometimes (Gamble being the kind of man he is) quite hard to bear. In short I think that Hadley-Pryce has completely nailed a certain sort of character - let's be honest, a certain sort of man. In one sense merciless, exposing him at times as very unpleasant, she's isn't - and the reader won't be - completely devoid of sympathy.

That is, of course, assuming you come to the conclusion that Gamble - if he is in some sense controlling the narration - gives you a sort-of accurate account of what happens. "He'll say he just needed - needs - someone to talk to. Just to talk". So we are told at the end of the book. Is the reader that someone? If so, can they rely on what they are told, or is it just Greg Gamble? He's tricky, that one. "There would have been an argument. But he had - has - a way of sounding sincere when he needs to..."

This book is heavy on contagion, on taint, Gamble exults, after one encounter, at having been tainted, something also expressed in his smoking or the way he seems to glory in the dank, oily waters of the canal. Given the remarkable sense of both closeness and distancing that the text achieves, it's a taint the reader finds hard to avoid: "He felt he was an expert at using and manipulating language to stroke this girl", "He'll say he thought he deserved her.." [my emphasis] - how creepy is that?

In some ways a distinctly uncomfortable read, this is nevertheless a book that must be read. Its prose will ensnare and entrap and it will leave something - perhaps something like a little pearl - behind. Quite apart from the vividly drawn character of Gamble himself, the prose is arresting and haunting throughout.

"There were sounds. Coughs of sounds, anyway." Somebody that Gamble has lost and misses had "flickered, like an illness" in his imagination and memory. A canal is "carved in black against the landscape".

It is a stunning read, though short - its 180 pages packs in more emotion, albeit viscous, congealed emotion like those canal waters - that may books three or four times as long. Written without chapters, it comes over as the transcript of a debrief or an interrogation. A report, perhaps, garnered from tapes produced in some smoky interview room. Raw take, with no introduction, no conclusion, no analysis, no artificial structure imposed on the singular internal life of Mr Gamble.

For more about the book, and to buy a copy, see the publisher's website here.

27 June 2018

Review - The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Cover by Elizabeth Story
The Freeze-Frame Revolution
Peter Watts
Tachyon Publications, 28 June 2018
PB/ e, 192pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a science fiction story, reaching into the far future. The far, far future - it ends some sixty million years from now (give or take a million or ten). Hence the title: Sunday Ahzmundin, our protagonist, is one of a 30, 000 humans carried aboard the Eriophora, a repurposed asteroid (I think) adapted as a space vessel and launched on a spectacular mission, planned to last into deep time.

As such, the Eriophora is operated from day to day by an artificial intelligence, referred to throughout as Chimp. Humans are stored in deep hibernation and only awakened, for a few hours or days, when their particular skills are needed for "the Mission". Thus they do not age appreciably, even as the world they have left behind - and the universe around them - evolve inexorably.

With this set-up, Watts seems to have created an inseparable barrier to any kind of linear narrative. Sunday is revived to assist with occasional "builds", some of them thousands of year ahead, and we begin to see... something... paying an interest to the rock as it performs its physics voodoo and spits out artificial black holes behind it. But the nature of the "gremlins" that seem to be following is obscure, and information about them relayed only indirectly.

Similarly, as some of the other characters seem to be developing doubts about "the Mission" (we learn that everyone aboard was brought up from childhood to take part, and we suspect there may have been even earlier modifications to them) it's hard to see how they can lead to anything more than stray remarks, centuries apart, in the margins of "builds' or as the crew wind down afterwards before being sent back to the "crypt".

Yet despite these constraints, Watts manages to spin a compelling narrative, albeit one that requires the reader to stay sharp and pick up hints from the text. I didn't find this difficult, this (admittedly short) book is one of those that whizzes along, almost demanding to be read in a sitting. (If you are worried about the hard science overtones and physics stuff making that difficult, don't be - just focus on the central point, this ship is basically a floating factory for making black holes and wormholes).

It is though more than just a whizzy SF plot, there is a lot here to think about. I spotted overtones of 2001 in Chimp's enthusiasm for the Mission and their general benign - or is it? - affect, which were very pertinent given the nature of that mission (establishing wormhole powered gates allowing for jumps across spacetime; not actually black monoliths, but, you know...) I also found Sunday's moral dilemma with regard to Chimp and to her fellow humans plausible, as well as the impossible position of the entire crew, seemingly the last humans in the universe.

Altogether then, an enjoyable and fun SF read and one with some genuine surprises for me.

For more about the book, see the Tachyon website here.

25 June 2018

Review - Fictional Alignment by Mike French

Cover by Tony Allcock
Fictional Alignment (An Android Awakes)
Mike French
Elsewhen Press, 2 April 2018
PB, 381pp
Source - Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

What to say about this book? There is so much in it that it's hard to know where to begin...

A sequel, of sorts, to French's An Android Awakes (my review of which, here, is quoted in Fictional Alignment) this book follows the young woman Sapphira, lover of Android Writer PD121928, after the latter is killed and destroyed on the cusp of an android rising that will overthrow the humans.

In a turn of affairs that somewhat recalled The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, ten years later, Sapphira joins up with a mixed group of humans and androids who are trying to enact the contents of her best-selling novel, Humans. They are doing this because, as a work of fiction, it must be eradicated, but the last copy cannot be removed from the Digitised Treasury, the androids' repository of all facts.

The choice is therefore made to make the story "happen", turning it into "truth", employing time travel and enormous resources in a process rather like making a film. Since some of the episodes in the book are bizarre to say the least, this does present problems and dangers.

As Sapphira, Heisenberg, Anna Lincoln, and this others criss cross back and forward through time, encountering real and fictional characters and setting up the plot turns of Sapphira's (actually, PD121928's) story, there is plenty of scope to muse on the nature of fact, fiction and truth, the deeper realities of religion (Sapphire dreams of PD121928 being crucified on his stack of rejection letters) and much else. A summary would be impossible, but the storytelling is dazzling, veering between surrealistic scenes (the Arctic Circus, which takes place on an oil rig; the exploits of Umberto Amundsen, allegedly a descendant of the great explore but in reality, the man himself, kidnapped out of time; a noirish detective episode), dreams, and revelations about what was really going on in An Android Awakes. It takes aim at various SFF tropes (such as the tendency to fixate on women' breasts) along the way.

Rereading what I've put above, I'm afraid I might be taken as saying that the book is a bit overwhelming.  But here, I think, French comes to the reader's rescue. It is not, we are told, facts that constitute ultimate reality, but story. While the facts might indeed overwhelm, perhaps as in a Christian parable or even a Zen puzzle, it would be fatal to try to understand the sequence of events as facts, to tidy them up and make them into things that might or might not happen - even if that's exactly what Heisenberg, here, is trying to orchestrate. Heisenberg fails in that, but has the insight to see a way round the failure, the answer being to just... well, dive in, in the fashion of the Amazing Arctic Sinking Man, and let the story carry you.

Fictional Alignment is indeed at times not an easy read. Recognisably in the same style as An Android Awakes, it is also a much more complex work, one that needs some time to digest - but is still very rewarding. And it all does kind of circle round and make a certain sense in the end, -although the abiding point of this remarkable book is I think not in that sense but more in the impact it makes as you read it.

As with the earlier book there are plenty of illustrations (also by French) which have their own spare beauty and add a great deal to the text.

For more information about this book see the publisher's website here.

22 June 2018

Review - The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Design by Julia Lloyd
The Mermaid
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 19 June 2018
PB, 321pp

Source: Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. (Thank you!)

Following on from Henry's retellings of Alice (as an abused girl adrift in a dangerous world) and of Peter Pan, this book is, as the name makes clear, her take on the legend of the mermaid who falls for a human man.

Rather than focussing on the remote fishing village where that happens, however, The Mermaid dispenses with the human husband briskly and follows Amelia's later life. Tempted to swim down the Big City (New York) she falls in with that great showman and liar, PT Barnum who, not surprisingly, wants to exhibit her in his "American Museum".

I admired the way that Henry transitions her story, beginning in familiar fairytale vein ("once there was a fisherman, a lonely man") then moving into a plain (and rather moving) depiction of Amelia's life with Jack and finally confronting the emotional complexities and social realities of 19th century New York.

Here Amelia has to navigate not only unfamiliar conventions - the constricting clothes, rules about who she may talk to and be alone with - but a delicate web of relationships within Barnum's museum, with his wife, Charity, his lieutenant, Levi (who found Amelia in the first place) and with wider society which has definite views on a young woman (even if she "isn't human") who appears naked in a tank of water.

Most of all, she suffers from the attention of a world of men. Indeed her situation is almost the personification of one subject to "male gaze":

She could think only of the eyes, the parade of eyes that would march past her all day.

Later, the theme of human cruelty becomes even more explicit when Barnum sends Amelia, accompanied by a motley group of performers and exhibits including an unfortunate orang-utan, to the South and Amelia witnesses caged and chained humans - something she had thought only happened to animals (and mermaids).

The writing here, describing Amelia's plight and turmoil, is right on the nose as the pressure builds and Amelia's relationship with Levi, hitherto her friend and protector, fractures:

He would not be converted. Amelia finally realised it was because he himself did not understand what it meant to be different and to have people expect you to change for their sake. She realised that no man could understand this, really, though they expected their wives to do so every day.

Amelia is driven into ever tighter corners - and dangers - both from the contradictions of her relationships with the men around her and the prejudices of society. She is out of her element, both literally and figuratively.

It's an enjoyable read, both more and less rooted in the real world than Henry's earlier books - more in the literal setting and the presence of historical characters, less in being more "magical". These skilfully blended elements keep the reader alert for what may happen next - we may think we know how a mermaid story ends - and provide a perfect backdrop for Henry's astute observation of human society.

For more information or to buy the book, see the publisher's website here.

(Finally, isn't that cover by Julia Lloyd gorgeous? - and so in keeping with the designs for Henry's earlier books)

19 June 2018

Blogtour review - Shattermoon by Dominic Dulley

Dominic Dulley
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 June 2018
PB, 433pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Shattermoon and for inviting me on the tour. (As well as the book, they also sent me instructions for making an Origami spaceship - - see below - how do you think I did?)

This is an absorbing adventure set in far future space (Earth is a distant memory). It's part mil-SF, part space piracy, part grift. and ALL space opera.

Orry Kent, her brother Ethan, and father Eoin make their living fleecing the Ruuz nobles of the Ascendency, currently by riding the wave of popularity of rare books, some dating back to Earth itself. We meet them in the middle of their latest scam, gulling Konstantin, heir to the Count of Delf.

But then Orry gets greedy and takes a liking to a certain pendant acquiring of which wasn't part of the plan. Soon, Konstantin is dead... and the Count wants HER dead. So does notorious pirate Morven Dyas... in fact, EVERYONE seems to want her dead. So begins a breathtaking romp taking in space battles, an abandoned alien civilisation, mercenaries, arrest, escape and a sentient spaceship with PTSD.

In tone it's a bit like what must be going on round the corner in Star Wars - indeed, it reminded me rather of the recent Solo film, (which I intend as praise). We don't see the manoeuvres of great powers here, but the little people - con artists, orphans on a marginal world, a lonely space captain, all making their way as best they can, all damaged, all vulnerable. (In making the comparison with Solo I should say, though, that the book has rather darker themes with some scenes that make it definitely adult. For starters, Dulley has no compunction in killing off his characters, often in very nasty ways, and being dashing and adventurous is no guarantee of coming through unscathed. Some of those nobles are also pretty debauched!)

While there is a wide cast of characters here, it is, though, Orry's book. Present in every scene, she is a convincing protagonist, desperately scared for much of the time (she has an especial fear of spacewalks) yet resourceful and good in a fight. She's a key part of the grifting team, competes the "collapses" that steer the family's ship, Bonaventure, and her impulse to take that pendant in the House of Delf drives the story.

Of course there's a reason why everyone wants the pendant... I won't say what it is because that would rather spoil the story, but it does draw Orry and her family (and a couple of stout friends she makes in the course of the story) into wider and more dangerous matters. It's all a long way from running cons on unsuspecting nobles, but Orry's ability to blag her way into (and out of) pretty much anything comes in useful. She may, though, have come to the end of her career when she crosses the Imperial Fleet in the form of Captain Naumov, who seems a truly implacable foe.

I would like to have seen the idea of an Empire ruled by aristocrats challenged here, although Orry and her family are happy to milk said nobles for all they can get. But for all that it's an exciting read with a capable and cool headed protagonist. I was impressed by the way that Dulley gets a naval feel to the action, the book reminding me somewhat of Hornblower.

Looking forward to the story continuing in the The Morhelion Exile.

14 June 2018

Review - Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage
Lisa Evans
Doubleday, 14 June 2018
HB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Old Baggage.

It is 1928. Matilda Simpkin, rooting through a cupboard, comes across a small wooden club – an old possession of hers, unseen for more than a decade...

This book is a prequel, of sorts, to Crooked Heart, in which we follow the story of young Noel in the early days of the Second World War after the death of his eccentric (though rather wonderful sounding) godmother, Mattie.

Old Baggage tells us more about the fascinating Mattie. She has led a turbulent life, including activism as a Suffragette, but when this story opens, in 1928, she's living a quieter life near Hampstead Heath with her companion Florae ("The Flea"). There are glimpses of past glories: Mattie's house was a refuge for women playing the deadline game of "cat and mouse" with the authorities at the height of the campaign for the vote. There are also regrets: that women' suffrage is still not universal (Florrie has never been able to vote, because she fails the property qualification), that the militant campaign was halted in favour of the War Effort.

Lissa Evans evokes very well the sense of chaffing, of stasis, that affects one who has taken part in significant events but is now sidelined. (This calls forward to a theme explored in Crooked Heart where we meet another stalwart suffragette in reduced circumstances during the Blitz). Faced with this, and after meeting an old comrade whose activism has taken a sinister turn into fascism, Mattie sets out to educate the girls of the district by founding a wonderful, anarchic outdoor youth group. Telling the stories of the suffragettes and of great women from history, teaching use of the javelin and the slingshot, and encouraging the young women to further their education, gives Mattie the focus she needs. And if it results in a little healthy competition with the rival, and hated, Empire League (which believes in smartly polished boots and the expulsion of foreigners) then what can go wrong?

This is a sharply observed, often comic, but also deeply sad story. We see - in flashbacks - something of Mattie's early life and come to learn about her strengths and but also her weaknesses. (Ida, one of the young women swept up in her wake, points out that however much Mattie's heart is in the right place, she does;t understand the difference having money has made to her). In the end her greatest weakness is all bound up with family and with her lost, adored brother Angus, of whom she can believe no wrong - a belief that warps her judgment in the end and risks the purposeful life she's built.

Old Baggage - the name cleverly combining an insult that might be used of a woman like Mattie and the idea of clutter from the past dragging one down, both themes of this book - is a fairly short book, just over 300 pages, yet it ranges widely. Evans gives us vignettes, showing Ida bogged down by her passive-aggressive mother who doesn't want her bright daughter to progress any further than she did, or at her 'continuation school', or Florrie at her work as a health visitor, trying to ameliorate the desperate tide of poverty and ignorance of the inter-war years. There are also Mattie's reminiscences, especially when she encounters a childhood friend, and glimpses of at least one other character from Crooked Heart (which I think I need to go back and reread now that I know more about Mattie). It's a very effective technique, allowing the book to cover much more ground than you would expect.

Coming a century after that achievement of the first votes for women - but at a time when the struggle for equality and decent treatment is clearly still raging - it's a also a salutary read, highlighting many issues that are still current, such as the man who seems a staunch ally, even being arrested and sent to prison, but whose motivation is at least in part to get close to all those women, or the women who hold other women back, or the consequences of an untimely, unwanted pregnancy. Or a shout from a man in the street:

"'Give us a smile, girlie,' said the bus conductor.

She could have bitten him."

Yes, there have been improvements.  Mattie reflects how "Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled  century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." But despite these, Mattie and a friend can't, as "unaccompanied" women, be served in a bar. Florrie still cares for wives whose husbands won't have any truck with contraception. And one of her colleagues accepts that if she marries, she'll have to give up work. many obstacles remain and perhaps Mattie's frustration at the start of this novel is her sense of that - and of having ceased to push forward, instead recalling old glories and giving her magic-lantern lectures about the struggle. All that old baggage.

It is simply a great read, peopled by larger than life characters who almost jump of the page to hold your attention. Deeply engaging. I hope that Evans might return, again, to these characters, telling us more about Mattie's earlier life, or Ida or Inez's future, or perhaps more about Noel (who also features here though to say how would be a spoiler).

I'd strongly recommend this book.

For more information, see the publisher's website here.

13 June 2018

Review - Shelter by Dave Hutchinson

Shelter (Tales of the Aftermath, Book 1)
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 14 June 2018
PB, 304pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

I've always been fascinated by the period in British history that used to be known as the Dark Ages. That name is used less now as it's been accepted that chaos didn't descend when Roman rule ended. Nevertheless there were huge changes - the loss of manufactured goods, of widespread trade and of currency.

Set a hundred or so years after the destruction of modern civilisation by an asteroid strike known as "The Sisters", Hutchinson's new book takes a look at what one might term a modern "Dark Ages". As in the 5th century, we see here little bands of survivors eking a living among the ruins, keeping farming going but with no modern manufacturing. Here, as then, there are surviving patches of control and order where military formations survived, and others where local strong men establish little kingdoms.

It was the age of Arthur...

...it is the age of Adam.

Adam is - what? A spy? An explorer? - for Guz, the realm, polity, city-state, call it what you will, that emerged from Portsmouth naval base. In this book he's sent on a mission across country to investigate a rather nasty warlord who has established himself in Kent. Adam is a resourceful sort, self reliant, careful, tough, and me makes a good viewpoint character as we see what our world has become, six or seven generations on.

Hutchinson is good at letting his story unspool, showing us the territories Adam is going through and the character of their residents. As well as Kent there's an agricultural enclave on the Berkshire/ Oxfordshire border (there's some kind of trouble further north in Oxford and the Cotswolds, we never find out exactly what) where much of this story takes place. It's not, though, an idyllic, Hobbiton sort of place. Rather, The Parish is rent by jealousies and grudges and ready to erupt in civil war. Inevitably Adam becomes involved in this but I won't say any more about the detail because that would give away rather too much.

This part of the story shows off rather effectively, I think, the "nasty, brutish and short" lifestyle which we all fear will befall us should civilisation stutter. The way Hutchinson chooses to animate the conflict here almost made me gasp - he's certainly not sentimental about his characters, and what happens shows, perhaps, that the term "Dark ages" really does describe this world.

If that's the bad news, the good is that there will be more books set in this universe - the next, Haven by Adam Roberts, is due in August. Hutchinson and Roberts are clearly having fun - as well as an Adam in this book the second has a "Forktongue Davy". Roberts, of course, has form in depicting apocalyptic, futuristic versions of Berkshire (see for example his New Model Army) and Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence (I think it's now a five book trilogy) shows a continent divided into petty states and autonamous holdings, so together they seem almost destined to produce something like this.

Very thriller-y, very violent, pretty dark and with hints of wider developments - whether it's the inherited nukes of Guz, the strange "Spanish fleet" moored off the coast or those mysterious goings-on to the north - I sense a lot more to come fro this world, and I'm looking forward to that (not least because I think I live in the path of one of these roving war bands and I need to know what's going on!)

For more on the book see this review at The Eloquent Page

7 June 2018

Review - Hunted by GX Todd

Hunted (The Voices, 2)
G X Todd
Headline, 31 May 2018
HB, 496pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Hunted (and - full disclosure - the previous book in this series, Defender, quotes my review).

Todd's previous book, Defender, was an outstanding example of post-apocalyptic storytelling - scary, searing and convincing. Hunted manages - and I don't know how she did this - to be better still. The story corps effortlessly from passages of grim realism, almost miniature documentaries on the breakdown of society under the onslaught of the "Voices", to dreamlike sequences threatening carnage and pain or moving passages showing how even in an upside-down world, love still endures.

The Voices brought death and destruction because they urged killing or self-killing. Those affected, even if they didn't commit violence, are deeply mistrusted by the survivors, tracked down, tortured and murdered. If you have a Voice you try to hide it.

Across a landscape of a ruined United States, we follow three groups of survivors trying, in their different ways, to live in this new, changed world. Posy leads a group of hunters, tracking the elusive woman Red. There is something a bit... off... about Posy, about his relationship with his own Voice, and with the terrible Flitting Man. He drives his ragtag team unmercifully, but his goal is obscure.

Albus and his group of survivors live at the inn by the Sea, hinted at in Defender. His abilities allow him to locate and save the lost and wandering, building a team that can travel in the nightmare world of these books - but again, why and for what purposes?

Lacey, Alex and Addison featured centrally in Defender and are in a sense the hinge of the book, fleeing across a cursed landscape (but escaping what? And going where?) They have made enemies, their friends are dead, but the three (two women and a girl) are coolly competent, survivors. They take some time to make their appearance, Todd holding back these most familiar - and most relatable - figures from the first book almost till the middle of Hunted and dwelling instead on Posy and Albus.

The stories of these groups are woven together into a complex timeline that isn't afraid to dip backwards and forwards. As a result there's a somewhat mythic sense, a distancing effect, through much of the book - seeing the aftermath of an awful event before the event itself both reassures (you know that everyone survived) and appals (when the event itself begins you know it will be bad because you've seen the post-trauma). At the same time, the dreaminess and a creeping understanding of the Voices (not complete, not yet, by any means) adds to the overall sense of gathering dread.

Todd is a brutal author. She holds little back when it comes to heaping suffering on or killing off her characters. Even the ordinary lives depicted here - I use that word advisedly - are bleak; doomed, starved, hopeless people shuffling through a withered, hopeless world. It isn't a zombie apocalypse by any means but the depth of suffering, the wrongness depicted here, is much, much worse making that almost seem like a cosy genre.

And as we see in Hunted the madness and destruction is not over, rather it's getting worse. More akin, perhaps, to Lord of the Flies than anything else I've read, the story takes a dark view of a humanity released from social conventions and tormented by apocalyptic, teasing, haunting visions.

While there are grains of hope here, the book can make for hard reading at times, but it is also at these times it's hardest to put down.

I know this book will stick with me. I'd strongly recommend you read it.

For more about Hunted see the publisher's webpage here. G X Todd's page is here.

1 June 2018

Review - Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott

Cover by Leo Nickolls
Wyntertide (Rotherweird 2)
Andrew Caldecott
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books, 31 May 2018
HB, 473pp

I read and enjoyed Caldecott's first book,  Rotherweird last year (my review). The story of a special town in England, one left isolated and made independent for a very special reason, it's a kind of steampunk Passage to Pimlico crossed with The Wind in the Willows, complete with eccentrics, villains, a vividly realised location (I want to live in one of those Rotherweird towers!) - and magic. All manner of wonders are there.

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the sequel, Wyntertide (and a copy of the Rotherweird paperback to pass on to a friend - see photo below).

'By the pricking of my thumbs...
The graves are open,
Wynter comes...'

Wyntertime is in several respects a more complicated, even a more 'difficult' book than Rotherweird (not meant in a bad sense!) In Rotherweird, we learn about the town gradually, through the arrived of an Outsider, new history teacher Jonah Oblong, who is pretty central to the story. An an Outsider he knows nothing of the place's history and ways, so we have the benefit of the explanations he is given, and see him gradually become part of the town until he is central to the cataclysmic events of Midsummer.

In Wyntertide, the story jumps straight in - and the viewpoint is much more evenly spread out among a wide cast of characters with Oblong playing a smaller role. This all puts a high premium on knowing who everyone is (there's a helpful list) and - given the interconnectedness of the stories - what happened before. For that reason I think they would best be read one after the other.

What Caldecott has done here is  think rather clever and rather risky. Given the appeal of Rotherweird-the-imaginary-place, it must have been tempting to play safe, to continue exploring the distinctive, inward looking culture with its rather 1950s-seeming population, coexisting with the modern world while not really being part of it. You might even sell that as a bit of a satire, and it's something I'd certainly read. Indeed, given the first book is actually about a threat from Outside while this one digs deep into Rotherweird's past, that almost seems the obvious way to go.

But Caldecott doesn't do that. Instead, he throws new and rather spicier elements into his dish. We may have thought we understood Rotherweird's past, and what the Eleusians did, but no. We learn more in this book - both about the Elizabethans who founded the town and about its even older history.

There is also romance here. There is politics, as the town is swept by election fever - including a rather scary attempt to scapegoat the Countrysiders and grab their possessions - and exiles return to vote. And a palpable sense that beneath the Hobbitish bustle and self-satisfaction of Rotherweird are dangerous currents.

And yes, at times, all the material does rather come across as one damned thing after another, with not one, not two, but three mysterious books in play, puzzles hidden in paintings and carvings, and at least two factions among the - rather mysterious - forces threatening the town. You can't accuse this book of ever having a dull moment. But that rather heightens the sense that nobody here is in control, nobody has the full picture, nobody can meet the threat that's coming.

And threatened the town is, by a more insidious, deep-laid and formidable plot than in Rotherweird, giving a much sharper sense of peril and, yes, of actual evil than in the previous book. It's definitely darker, and I'd strongly recommend you to read it, and to keep reading, even if slightly overwhelmed by the beginning.

Finally, I have to say a word about the gorgeous illustrations by Sasha Laika. Gorgeous in themselves, they really bring something to the text, whether chilly horror, immersive world building or simply tenderness. And of course, the cover map, by Leo Nickolls, is glorious.

The third and final book, Lost Acre, comes next year. It promises to be a real treat.

Jo Fletcher books setting a high standard in bookpost

28 May 2018

Review - The Cutting Edge by Jeffrey Deaver

The Cutting Edge (Lincoln Rhyme)
Jeffrey Deaver
Hodder, 17 May 2018
HB, 434pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.

This is a tense and cunningly plotted thriller set around the workshops and showrooms of New York's diamond district.

With Lincoln Rhyme and his associates, Deaver has created a magnificent ensemble. Based around the ex-cop's New York townhouse, which features a fully equipped modern forensics lab, the team support Rhyme who acts as consultant to the New York police, the FBI and also more esoteric law-enforcement agencies.

Rhyme may be quadriplegic but dominates the books through his leaps of deduction and understanding of forensic science. Very much a Sherlock Holmes figure - in places this book reminded me of Holmes's reading a man's entire life from the observation that he had mud on his shoes particular to a certain area of London - Rhyme nevertheless has a degree of humanity and empathy that, perhaps, the Great Detective lacked.

He needs all of it here. A serial killer is targeting newly engaged and married couples. Will Rhyme and Amelia Sachs come into the killer's sights?

This is a story that seems to be resolving fairly early. We see a killer at work, and surely it is it just a mater of time until Rhyme and his crew join the dots and catch them.

But. Things start to get... complicated. The book has a truly fiendish plot, continually seeming about to resolve but then only getting more complicated. Rhyme seems to be getting distracted, taking on private work for, of all people, a South American drugs lord. What's that about? And as the jewellery killer flits about Manhattan, other, older forces seem to be causing destruction as well.

It's a very enjoyable book, full of sharp turns, misdirection and relations. You have to watch everything, but trust nothing. Once or twice I thought Deaver was being sloppy with the story, then turned the page and kicked myself for missing what was really going on.

An enthralling mystery, lots of peril, a cast of well established and likeable characters - and a killer. What more could you want?

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

26 May 2018

Review - Charmcaster by Sebastien de Castell

Charmcaster (Spellslinger 3)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 17 May 2018
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

This is the third in de Castell's Spellslinger series, following the adventures of runaway mage Kellen. If you haven't read the earlier books yet you definitely should - read on to see why! (I've tried to avoid spoilers here for the earlier books).

Kellen is a credible and engaging protagonist. He's had to flee his home and leave his family (albeit after they treated him appallingly). He is struggling with what he believes to be a full blown curse. He's not all-powerful, he has been wounded and limited in his earlier encounters with his fellow Jan'Tep. Yet still he tries to make his way - essentially, he brags his way through dangerous situations using the skills taught his by the wandering Argosi, Ferius. There's an air of tension in any encounter with more powerful mages or warriors, albeit one frequently offset by the humour of Kellen's bickering with his squirrel cat 'business partner', Reichis - the relationship between the two often becoming quite touching. And Ferius is a great support, although she seems to be repeatedly getting into danger in defence of Kellen...

In this book, the three are joined by another renegade Jan'Tep, who has also been damaged by that community, and the group is beginning to shape up into an interesting crew, quite different from the typical fantasy band of arrogant adventurers. The language and atmosphere of continues, at the start,  to echo that of a Western, focussed on the idea of escape into an unknown frontier - albeit, as this book makes clear, it isn't really, it's already occupied by other people - but that changes somewhat when the group arrive at a city.

Gitabria is renowned far and wide for its cunning inventions. There, the friends  find themselves caught between angry mages, visionary 'contraptioneers' - inventors - and a rather nasty Secret Police. There's a messy, many-sided power struggle going on and Kellen has to dig deep into his reserves of courage and also of trust. When family, clan and friends fall - like Ferius's cards - into such strange patterns, how will you know who to rely on?

There is a danger with drawn out series that the pace will flag, the clarity of the original vision be lost, as the author explores a wider and wider world. Nothing like that is going on here. I felt that Charmcaster is, rather, more sharp and focussed than Spellslinger or Shadowblack with some juicy moral dilemmas and with an awful choice (well, actually, several) confronting Kellen. In a sense, he's growing up and needs to decide where his life is going, conscious that he's bringing danger to those around him.

It's also a book that is more ensemble than the earlier volumes - with one new character in particular (well, not actually new, but, at the same time, new) who is another complex, conflicted and wounded person and easily a match for Kellen.

It is all, really, getting darker and messier. Just how I like things.

With the fourth volume, Soulbinder, due this Autumn, you've got time to catch up - so get reading!

You can see my reviews of Spellslinger and Shadowblack here and here. For more about the book see the publisher's website here.

23 May 2018

Review - 84K by Claire North

Claire North
Orbit, 24 May 2018
HB, 452pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of 84K.

Trying to sum up this book, and North's writing, in a discussion with a friend on Twitter recently, I said that she is a remarkable writer, doing extraordinary things. There's a sense in which case I ought perhaps to stop there because I find that - like many of the books I enjoy most - it's hard to say a more. A book can take you like that. The reading catches you so strongly that you can't uncouple and analyse it.

But I want to say more because I want to persuade you, my readers (yes, both of you) to try this book. In doing that I'll assume you haven't read North's work (although... why wouldn't you have...) and try to explain why it grabs me so much.

First, there's her language. More than any other I currently read, North is disassembling and reconstructing English as she goes along. Her books are full of half completed sentences, implied and finished in the reader's head rather than on the page. Sometimes, that is to catch the roughness and jumble of actually spoken language but sometimes it's...

It's hard to give an example because the way the words works is intimately wired into their layout on the page. Spaces, blank half lines, gaps, all matter. It must have been sheer murder to type because the shape is important, this isn't "content" than en e-reader can crunch or MS Word repaginate. So I'm afraid that if I try and quote some the blog sprites will munge it up and lose the effect. But try this (I have removed a character's name to avoid a spoiler)

'The police had an inventory of items removed from [ ]'s flat
      toothbrush hairbrush shoes bedside cup
      splatter evidence blood evidence fingerprints DNA not that
anyone would
      A confession has been received, and given the low estimate value of [ ]'s death, it is not considered necessary at this time to run any more tests on...'

Reading the book, the cumulative effect is almost theatrical, almost once of dance. The words are choreographed, organised, creating shape quite outside the literal meaning. And the literal meaning itself isn't the literal meaning, if that isn't too daft, the suggestiveness of the language doing more than that. Honestly I could drive myself round and round in circles trying to describe this, but you just have to read this, you really do. They're beautiful - both the meaning you take and also the sheer verve, the brilliance, with which North makes her words sing and dance.

If that was all, the book might be interesting but no more. It isn't all, though. There is a thrilling and angry story in this book. Set in the near future (maybe decades from now - global warming in in evidence through rising sea levels, but technology hasn't moved on much) this is a nightmarish world of rampant corporatism. Outsourcing totally out of control, the country is being devoured by the ever-present Company. Not only does it carry out most of the functions of Government, it buys and sponsors whole towns - we hear of Shawford by Budgetfood, the hometown of Theo Miller, our sort-of hero. We hear of how everything is now a matter of money, crime settled by the computation of an "indemnity" to be paid by the perpetrator. We hear how those who can't afford the indemnity are sent to the "patty line" to make restitution. We hear how, impossible to obtain ID being required to vote, the country has slipped out of being a democracy.

The "patties", mentioned in passing to begin with, occupy more and more of the focus of this story as the story reveals how their cheap labour is hollowing out the whole economy, leaving communities abandoned - outside the comfortable enclaves patrolled by the Company police - and whole swathes of the population marginalised, able only to express their despair by howling with rage in the night.

It's a nightmarish, dystopian vision, hard at times to bear - there is a market for everything, we're told, and any offences committed in driving those markets are easily wiped out if the Company will pay the indemnity - but, like the most hard-edged, disturbing destinies I'd venture that there is nothing described here that hasn't actually happened somewhere, sometime. I certainly found it scarily plausible.

Through this broken world, Theo takes a journey, on foot and by canal boat (the latter belonging to Neila, the most truly likeable characters here). North is cagey, to begin with, about where he's going and why, and indeed she dices Theo's story and tells it in thin slices, moving back and forward: it takes till almost the end of the book to work out what order things might have happened in, so I won't say anything more here because spoilers.

Who is Theo? He's an investigator with the Criminal Audit Office, one of the few remaining parts of the Government, and his role is to compute the price of crimes so that the appropriate indemnity can be levied and the patty line keep moving. And, if you were wondering, 84K is the price of a life. (Though I think that combined with the prominence in the book of the "19 Committee" there's also an allusion to another book in which individuals have become part of the machine). In the course of his work, Theo crosses paths with an old friend who knows a secret that could ruin him.

She wants something, and that drives the story in a satisfyingly thriller-y way - but behind this is a story of lives ruined, by a pitiless, profit-maximising system, yes, but also by more ordinary, human quirks and failures. Many of the behaviours exposed here - the sexism enabled and abetted by wealth and privilege, the greed, the seeing others as things to be used and then thrown out, the cowardice, the refusal, 20 years before, to see the way things were going - are not of course troubling new things to be found in a grim future but features of our world, now, things only held in check - if they are held in check - by fragile social norms. North's book is a scary warning, akin to Swift or Orwell, of where all that might lead.

Unlike North's recent books (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch, The End of the Day) there is nothing straightforwardly fantastical here, unless one takes the almost prophetic anger of The End of the Day, dialled up in this book to 11, as fulfilling that role. yes, the timeline is tricksy, and to a degree, the story is punctuated by Neila use of Tarot cards, but the world of 84K is probably too grim to be redeemed by a protagonist who explores successive different timelines or is forgotten when out of sight. Indeed, its grimness is the point - the "thing" about 84K is that future, beckoning us to, oh-so-gradually, give ourselves up to its marketing and its economic efficiency.

Put simply, this book just blew my mind. A remarkable writer, doing extraordinary things, and I think this is her best book yet.

I could say a lot more about it but I only really want to say two.

Buy this book.

Read this book.

12 May 2018

Review - Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Cross Her Heart
Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins, 17 May 2018
HB, 373pp

I'm VERY grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book which I've been eagerly awaiting.

Cross Her Heart must be a strong contender for THE psychological thriller of 2018. Building on the success of last year's Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough has packed in even more reversals, even more revelations, combined with a sense of sheer page-turning dread that made me equally desperate to find out what happened next - and fearful of knowing.

In this book, innocence is abused, the past explodes into seemingly orderly lives and secrets corrode relationships.

Lisa has worked hard to build a safe home for her daughter, Ava, far from her abusive alcoholic father, Jon. Their life might be quiet but it's secure.

Marilyn has secrets of her own. But she doesn't want to burden her best friend Lisa. 

But when Ava heroically saves a young boy's life, and it makes the national press, it looks like Jon has found them at last.

As danger draws closer Marilyn is the only person Lisa can turn to for help. But can they protect Eva when the threat seems to be everywhere?

Cross Her Heart escalates quickly. Almost from the start there's an atmosphere of menace. We sense that Lisa is in danger. We see clearly that she's troubled by the past and fearful, on edge - though we don't know why. But to distract Lisa there is the day to day routine of her work, rivalry with an unwelcome new colleague who may have secrets of her own, worry over ordinary teen problems with Ava. Maybe, just maybe, Lisa's a bit paranoid.

Alison, in whom she confides, certainly thinks so.

Pinborough excels at describing the day to day anxieties, insecurities and concerns of the women in this book. Eating. Dissatisfaction with their bodies. It's not only Lisa and her workmates, there's sixteen year old Ava too and her gang in the swimming club. They are so young, so insecure, but so much want to be grown up and at the same time they think they're so wise, so worldly, so much cooler than fuddy duddy mothers - just like every generation before them. Portrayed warmly and with heart, their lives are vivid and yearning. As the sense of dread builds, it's entwined with these mundane concerns, Lisa's work worries both fuelling her other fears and taking the edge off them.

Taking her edge off, too, so she doesn't see what's coming, despite spending years looking over her shoulder. The reader sees some, not all of it - several times I was almost shouting "LOOK OUT!" at Lisa. But of course she doesn't want to be worried, she wants to believe that all is well.

And then it hits.

Even as the storm rises and catastrophe strikes, Ava still focusses, though, on her own concerns, her boyfriend, sex, the uncertain tides and currents of her friendship with Angela, Jodie and Lizzie, the fraught relationship with her "weird Mum" who's oh so clingy and should just BACK OFF. Because it's all about Ava, isn't it? With great sympathy and compassion, Pinborough has I think absolutely nailed that desperate stage of life when everything is changing too fast and yet not fast enough, especially if your mother won't let you alone, texts three times in the evening to check you're OK, insists on driving you to school.

But why IS Lisa so overprotective? Parents always are, yes, but... there's more here. What's Lisa hiding, and why doesn't she just come out with it and tell Ava? But then everyone here is hiding something.

Ava certainly is.

So is Marilyn.

DON'T let anyone spoil this book for you by telling you what's going on. DON'T flick to the end. DON'T, above all, trust the book. It escalates quickly, yes, but it's twisty too, indeed even the twists have twists. Always remember it may not be going where you think!

All in all, an electrifying read but also, such a sad book. At times - be warned - it makes very dark reading and these characters really suffer. But Pinborough is never gratuitous. There is abuse here, and there are desperate, stunted lives. But there are also friendships, and loyalty, and trust given against all appearances and there is a moment towards the end of the book when a character says "I'm not going to wait around for a man to save the day. Fuck. That. Shit" and after what you've read through up to that moment you will, I guarantee, punch the air (please bear this in mind if you're reading the book on a crowded train).

This is vintage Pinborough, clever, insightful, deeply human, compassionate and perceptive. If you want to read about how modern lives work, and don't work, you need to read Sarah Pinborough's books. You need to read THIS book. Remember, though, the tricks that she plays with you, the reader, in them.